By Terrylynn Brant
Since the beginning of agriculture over 10,000 years ago people have saved seeds. The Haudenosaunee seed savers have developed a wide variety of seeds over the centuries. This diversity in seeds is the cornerstone of a healthy sustainable agricultural system. It is our National Treasury.
Seed saving has inspired the Haudenosaunee to create an elaborate society which honours seeds through songs,dances, speeches, and ceremonies. Our entire world view is heavily influenced by seeds. We exist because we save seeds and every harvest I turn my attention to restoring our National Seed Treasury. It is scary when I realize that in 1900 we ate 1,500 different plants and today we eat around 30. It is even scarier when I think about the future of farming that predicts only one plant, soya beans, will feed the world.
So please start saving seeds. It isn’t hard and here are a few basics that can get you started.
As a seed saver you choose the type of seeds you save. You can choose the mono-cropped super-hybrid seeds of commercial agriculture that you purchase at your local garden centre but due to terminator gene breed into them many will not germinate next spring. I encourage you to choose Haudenosaunee heritage seeds that are a product of the unique eco-system and society that grew them. The choice eventually will be made for you as geneticists tell us the days of hybrids are limited as they run out of new genetic sources to create them.
Centuries of selective seed saving has created resistant plants and the best varieties both in beauty and flavour.
Selecting the best desirable characteristics is a powerful way to create new varieties. You can plant the same varieties in different environmental conditions or plant different varieties in the same environmental conditions to gently create new varieties.
Dryness is most important factor in long term seed storage and Mother Nature supports this by providing perfect sunny, dry harvest days. I do the bulk of my harvest as things ripen but allow the best plants a little longer growing season. More time means the seeds can fully develop before picking. Be prepared to finish drying inside or under cover if the fall rains come too soon. Seed are dry when the chaff (pods/covering) can easily crumble off.
The processing stage is the cleaning and separating of seeds from the chaff (pods/covering). You may have to flail the seeds first, which is the fracturing or crushing of the pods in order to free the seeds. This can be done with your hands massaging the seed heads, by your feet stepping on pods, or using a tool to crush hard outer coverings.
Once the seeds have been released from their host then threshing is the actual separating of the seeds and chaff.
Screens can help here or even just pulling the chaff out with your hands.
There will be the tiny bits of chaff that are best cleaned by winnowing. Winnowing is pouring seeds and chaff through the moving air. The air/wind blows the lighter chaff away from the heavier seeds. Large flat baskets or bowls are used to catch the seeds as they fall below. When saving corn, a corn shellers is a good investment as they can shell a cob of corn in seconds.
I spend many evenings under good lighting selecting seed and every seed saver has their own list of characteristics they are looking for. Characteristics are general features of seeds that are attributed to unidentifiable genes. Things like heat or cold tolerance, winter hardiness, and early maturation are characteristics that are heavily dependent on growing locations.
Traits are attributed to one gene. Things like bush or pole growth, smooth or wrinkled surfaces, and disease resistance are traits most commercial breeders look to control. Traits are more important to commercial growers as they can genetically manipulate them.
I look for the most perfect, healthy and disease free seeds to become next year’s planting stock. Some seeds that don’t make the cut so I use them as chicken and bird feed.
I store planting stock in jars clearly labeled with variety, year, location, conditions and grower’s name. A seed journal entry of this information along with a description on the growing season, any new historical, traditional use, medicinal use or cooking information can be noted.
Climate change has heightened our awareness of extremes in weather conditions as it effects growing success more than ever. Telling the story of the growing season helps build our Indigenous knowledge about the resilience of our seeds for future generations.
Seeds for planting must be kept dry so I use glass jars as plastics can leech chemicals into the seeds and bags can fall prey to rodents and insects.
Total darkness is best but indirect light is tolerated. Temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius are best for storage.
The basic rule is you need warm, wet, light conditions to grow seeds so to store them do the opposite by having it cool, dry and dark. Look to eliminate the conditions that may cause the seeds to sprout or mold.
Last spring due to Covid and seed shortages I provided 50 bags of Haudenosaunee seeds to local families and larger community sized packages for 6 other indigenous communities. The bags contained everything from flowers to beans, corn and even seed potatoes. This package was intended to get families to start down the seed saving road. I only asked for pictures of families growing the seeds as payment. I have seen many and am confident that the saved seeds will provide for even larger harvests in the coming years.
Mohawk Seedkeeper Gardens is located on Six Nations and we welcome individuals to come learn and share in our traditional agricultural wealth. (Covid protocols in place). Look for us on Facebook @Mohawk Seedkeepers.